I had never seriously considered swimming the length of Windermere until the last couple of years, although I loved the idea. Meeting a fellow swimmer on a tall ship off the coast of north west Scotland on a swimming holiday in 2021 put the idea in my head and it wouldn't go away. As the small group of swimmers got talking at the start of the trip, one person stood out. Quite unexpectedly she confirmed, in a very low key way, that she had already swum the length of Windermere - 11 miles, and was now only a month away from a 2 length swim.
I met up with her just before that swim, and we had a leisurely warm up on Derwent Water. We swam out from Calfclose Bay to Rampsholme Island and then headed towards St Herbert's Island. It was evening, there was no boating traffic and it was just lovely, swimming side by side, stroke to stroke. We must have done a few kilometres of swimming. A few days later, my friend got up early and swam 22 miles - two lengths. I definitely could see she had more endurance and fitness than me, but it sparked in me a possibility and a determination. May be, with a bit more training I could swim the length of Windermere.
It could have been a combination of the lack of swimming during the Covid-19 lockdowns and a realisation of the importance of making the most of the spare time you have, that made me think it was now or never. So I signed up, started squad training at the pool and as winter turned to spring and summer, I upped the distance I was swimming in open water.
I swam all through the winter in the outdoors, in lakes and tarns, and as the temperatures dropped a swim became a dip. Then spring and summer came and with it a welcome warming - Rydal and Grasmere became two favourite training grounds, as too the Blue Lagooners swim and triathlon training lake in South Yorkshire. By July, another swimming holiday to Montenegro allowed me to cover distances every day for a week in beautifully clear, warm waters with the sun beating down. In the run up to the swim, I tested myself on five miles continuous front-crawl swimming. When cramp set in towards the end of the swim, I knew I would need to really focus on hydration and nutrition for the event.
I'm not a fast swimmer and I like to take in the sights and stop and witness nature in the middle of a lake. But to complete Windermere One Way, I would need to keep swimming for hours - I planned on around 7 hours with what I call a walking pace of swimming (the measure of this is that I can stop and chat). To support me on the swim, I persuaded my adult son to provide the kayak support for me and we had a particularly wet weekend swimming around Coniston, practising as a team.
As August arrived the warm weather continued and we were blessed with a spell of calm, hot days. The evening before the swim we picked up our event pack from the T2Events office in Staveley, and then my partner Jim, son Ewan and myself headed off for a dip in Rydal. As we drove along the side of Windermere towards Ambleside, the lake was incredibly still - with the afternoon light reflecting on the flat surface of the water. We floated and breaststroked around Rydal for half an hour, along with plenty of other people, finding a quiet patch among the ducks.
A quick drink at the Badger Bar, and then we dropped off our kayak for storage at Fell Foot, and then off to Kendal for dinner at the Brewery Arts Centre, before getting an early night. Up at 4am, we got to Brathay at the northern end of Windermere in the dark at 5am - our early rising gave us the opportunity to witness a barn owl on the side of the road in mid-kill, tearing into a mouse. The car lights flashed upon the commotion of its ruffled wings, and then it was gone into the darkness again.
As we arrived at Brathay, there was a quiet line of swimmers and supporters parking cars and then walking up to catch the coaches down to Fell Foot, arms full of bags, paddles, buoyancy aids, wetsuits, drinks and food. The journey down to Fell Foot allowed us to glimpse once more the length of Windermere under bright moonlight and a clear sky. As we passed Waterhead, I thought, when I next glimpse this I will know I have done it. But that seemed a long way off.
Down at Fell Foot everyone was busily getting kayaks ready, putting on wetsuits, organising food and listening to the safety briefings. It was a friendly atmosphere and low key, the event felt more of a journey to me than a race. And as we entered the warm water in the first wave at 6.45am, with the light now revealing the flat, still swimming conditions, it felt like a brilliant day for a swim, so exciting.
It was an incredible experience - perhaps the highlights were the first few miles when I felt fresh and we had the lake all to ourselves. As I found my pace and got the feel of the water I relaxed into the swimming knowing Ewan was by my side to guide me. At two miles, swimmers crossed from east to west, and that was really exhilarating - something that I will always remember. A line of swimmers ahead, alongside their orange 'high vis' support kayakers, marked the line of travel. As we approached the half way mark and Belle Isle, with its ancient, and personal, Philipson family connection, I felt ecstatic - to be enjoying this occasion with so many other swimmers.
But the second half was gruelling, with arms feeling heavy and shoulders exploding, I could sense the lightness of my swimming at the start had deserted me. It was good to have my own supporter with me, Ewan encouraging me on with a count down of the distance to go, and regular drinks and snacks on hand. But It is a head game because as fatigued as I felt, as Wray Castle came into view, I knew we were only a few miles off and suddenly those arms started to feel lighter. As we rounded a last headland and the finish came into view - still probably a mile or so away, it was head down as my pace returned.
Swimming into the finish was such a joy, it was all about completing the swim. It didn't matter about time, but just to enjoy this day and take part was enough. An experience and a memory we will always have, of something we did and achieved together.
Things I learned about a long distance swim:
1. Prepare well - train your body and your mind for being in the water a long time - get regular distance swims in.
2. Be confident - if you are practised at distance swimming, and not worried about the time, you can relax and enjoy the day.
3. Study the route and terrain so that you can spot landmarks and have a sense of progress as well as taking in the sights. Think about breaking the route into sections and work out how regularly you want a breather.
4. Work as a team - if you have kayak support as I did for this event, get to know your paddler and practise together.
5. Think carefully about hydration and nutrition - I had regular sips of water and a sports drink and small amounts of balanced food. Work out what works for you and think about keeping your body nourished to avoid cramp and fatigue.
6. Make sure you have trained in your kit - for instance be familiar with wearing your chosen wetsuit, tow float, goggles and ear plugs before the event.
7. Focus on your own swim and your pace so that you are comfortable for the duration - and take the time to really enjoy yourself and take in the moment.